Le, La, Les: The French Definite Article in Context Français translation jobs
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Le, La, Les: The French Definite Article in Context


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An article is a word that is placed before a noun or adjective to indicate the type of reference being made to the noun. Articles can be definite (showing a reference to a specific person or thing) or indefinite (showing reference to any one person, place or thing out of a general group).

The definite article in English is made up of one word – ‘the’ – but in French, this is complicated by the fact that the definite article must change form to agree with the gender and number of the noun to which it refers:

Masculine

Le

Feminine

La

Plural

Les
(the ‘-s’ is silent; pronounced like the ‘le-’ sound in ‘let’)

However, there are significant differences in the way the definite article is used in French and in English:

  1. When generalizing or using abstract nouns, the definite article is used in French, whereas in English it is entirely omitted:
    • Les plantes produisent de l’oxygène
      Plants produce oxygen
    • Ils cherchent la gloire
      They seek glory
    • La nourriture est chère dans ce pays
      Food is expensive in this country
  2. When referring to parts of the body, especially if these are the object of the verb or used reflexively (meaning the originator of the action is also its receipt point) , the French can use the definite article and the owner of the body part is simply understood, whereas in English the possessive article is used as appropriate (my, her, his, their):
    • Il s’est cassé le bras
      He has broken his arm
    • Elle se lave les mains
      She is washing her hands
    • Elle ferme les yeux
      He is closing his eyes
  3. When referring to countries and regions the definite article is used in French but not in English:
    • La France
      France
    • L’Angleterre
      England
    • Le Sussex
      Sussex
    Note that the definite article in the singular masculine and feminine (le and la) is elided to l’ when used with nouns and adjectives beginning with a vowel or beginning with a silenth’ (hence L’Angleterre and not La Angleterre).
  4. The definite article is also used in French when referring to languages, unlike English:
    • Le français
      French
    • L’allemand
      German
    • Le grec
      Greek

    Note: in French, the name of the country (France) takes a capital letter, but the adjectival form (français) is lower case.

    However, when used with the verb parler (to speak), this does not apply and no definite article precedes the language:
    • Elle parle anglais
      She speaks English

      But (without the verb ‘parler’):
    • Elle apprend l’anglais
      She is learning English

Conclusion

A French text will contain, on average, a much larger amount of definite articles than an English text, especially due to the obligatory omission of the definite article in English abstract and generic noun. The use of too few definite articles in French or too many in English can often betray a lack of fluency in either language.

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